Monday, March 11, 2013

What I Heard While Visiting the Environmental Working Group

In my experience, most farmers are skeptical of environmentalists.  Many environmental groups deserve this reaction, in my opinion, because some exhibit a self-righteous quality that is insulting to someone whose livelihood depends on the long-term sustainability of his or her land.  How can someone in an office in Washington, D.C. understand land management better than someone who has spent his or her entire life managing the field outside their kitchen window?  This tension recently came to light when I, together with my Indiana Agricultural Leadership classmates, visited the Environmental Working Group (EWG) in Washington, D.C.  Here are some of the ideas I heard (italics are my paraphrasing of EWG):

Farm subsidies should be published for all to see.  The EWG made headlines when it decided to openly publish the specific amount of farm subsidies provided to US farmers on its website. This has upset many farmers, who don't like that a neighbor can learn the amount of their payment online.  EWG offers no apologies for this.

Overuse of field tiling has created nonpoint source pollution.  One EWG employee explained that field tiling can provide rain and stormwater with a more direct route to a creek or stream. That may be true in some instances, but it doesn't hold up everywhere.  Excessive surface water runoff following heavy rains can create large erosion problems, sending good topsoil and crop residue downstream.  Effectively managing this runoff is crucial to long-term soil stability and productivity.  I don't think we should vilify field tiling, but instead make sure that field tiles are installed correctly to reduce soil erosion and nutrient runoff.

There isn't enough land available for manure generated from CAFOs. One EWG employee mentioned that their opposition to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) was driven, in part, by the lack of available farmland for spreading manure that comes from such concentrated animal production.  That might be true in suburbia outside of Washington D.C., but anyone who has ever driven across Western Kansas, Nebraska, or Texas knows there is plenty of farmland available for manure spreading.  Most Indiana row-crop land is fertilized with commercial fertilizers.  There isn't enough manure to fill the nitrogen needs of Midwestern farms.  I would challenge EWG on this point.

The dirty dozen.  The EWG also published its list of the "dirty dozen" foods containing the most pesticides (as well as the opposite "Clean 15" foods with the least pesticides).  They are skeptical of  EPA pesticide approvals since, according to EWG, there are some pesticides that were approved by EPA and later disapproved.  At least "corn" was listed on the Clean 15.

Still, in spite of the disagreements between EWG and the Midwestern farmers in our leadership class, I was left thinking that modern agriculture does have something to learn from environmental groups like EWG.  EWG is trying to shape agricultural policy on a national level and is comfortable engaging in healthy debates about he environment.  How many farmers can say they are doing that too?  Those of us working the land or working in agriculture need a seat at the environmental table.  It starts by being ready to frankly discuss the issues.

By Todd Janzen

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